Census 2020 – Undercount Could Be Worst in 30 Years

In NPR’s 2020 Census Could Lead To Worst Undercount Of Black, Latinx People In 30 Years, by Hansi Lo Wang, June 4, 2019, (Link), features a new report by the Urban Institute that found that “challenges threatening the upcoming 2020 census could put more than 4 million people at risk of being undercounted in next year’s national head count. Based on the institute’s analysis, the 2020 census could lead to the worst undercount of black and Latino and Latina people in the U.S. since 1990.”

“Miscounts of this magnitude will have real consequences for the next decade, including how we fund programs for children and invest in our infrastructure,” says Diana Elliott, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute who co-wrote the report released Tuesday.

Nationally, black residents could be undercounted by as much as 1.7 million people (3.68%); 2.2 million Latinos (3.57%); and 1.3 million children (6.3%).

“All of these projections are based upon what the Urban Institute considers a “high-risk” scenario. Still, John Thompson, a former Census Bureau director who reviewed the report, says that these estimates “may be a little bit on the conservative side. It could be as bad as 1990. It could be worse.”

“Census Bureau researchers have warned that including the citizenship question would very likely scare households with noncitizens into not responding to the census. In a separate study, the bureau concluded the question was a “major barrier” to full participation in the head count, especially at a time of increased immigration enforcement and rising anti-immigrant rhetoric around the U.S.”

“The Supreme Court is expected to rule by the end of June on whether the Trump administration can include the citizenship question. Newly disclosed documents belonging to a major GOP redistricting strategist involved in the administration’s push for the question are complicating the legal battle.

Regardless of how the court rules, the Urban Institute researchers say all of the public attention on the question has created a chilling effect on census participation among Latinx and immigrant groups — a factor they included in their projections for a “high-risk” scenario.”

“The report also points out new ways of conducting the U.S. census that have not been thoroughly tested and could pose another risk to the count’s accuracy. These methods include allowing all households to complete an online form and expanding the use of existing government records to help complete questionnaires for households that don’t respond themselves. Uncertainty in funding in recent years has led the Census Bureau to cancel field tests for the 2020 census, including test runs designed for rural and Spanish-speaking areas.”

“Not only are these new additions insufficiently tested in a decennial census environment,” write the report’s authors, “but the best evidence suggests they will disproportionately improve the count of those who are already easiest to count, leaving the hard-to-count population a lingering challenge.”

“At the state level, these trends mean that states with more historically undercounted groups — including people of color and renters — are more likely to have inaccurate population counts in 2020. While California, Texas and Nevada face high undercount risks, states with older populations that are more likely to be white and owning homes — including Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and West Virginia – have the greatest potential for being overcounted, according to the institute’s analysis. In the 2010 census, for example, white homeowners were overcounted because some with multiple homes were counted incorrectly at multiple addresses.”

“Whether it’s an overcount or undercount, the concern is that political representation and federal funding will not be fairly shared after the 2020 census. The new population numbers will determine how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets, as well as guide the distribution of around $880 billion a year in federal tax dollars for schools, roads and other public services.”

“Despite their report’s dire warning about potential undercounts, the Urban Institute’s researchers emphasize there is still an opportunity to overcome these challenges by driving up public interest and participation in next year’s count.”

California is expected to face many of the challenges outlined in the report.  The Public Policy Institute of California (Link)  says, “An undercount could affect California’s political representation in Congress:  The decennial census is the sole basis for reallocating the 435 seats in the US House of Representatives. Given recent population trends, California is likely to maintain its 53 seats. But if the census does a poor job of reaching hard-to-count populations and immigrant communities, it could miss more than 1.6 million residents—and the state could easily lose a seat. The census will also be used to redraw district lines; its accuracy is essential to correctly representing local communities.”

The 2020 Census will realign political representation based on areas of population growth.

“The US government uses the census count to distribute billions of dollars every year: The census count lays the foundation for many federal programs to deliver resources on a per capita basis or to specific populations, such as young children in poverty. In fiscal year 2016, California received an estimated $115 billion in federal funding tied to the state’s population count. For some programs, such as Medi-Cal (the state’s Medicaid program), California’s base federal funding allocation is subject to a strict minimum level. But for others, like the Children’s Health Insurance Program, an undercount could put funding at risk.”

“Large segments of California’s population are historically hard to count: In 2017, about 72% of all Californians (29 million) belonged to one or more groups that the census has historically undercounted, including renters, young men, children, African Americans, and Latinos. Those living in nonstandard housing—conditions exacerbated by the state’s housing crisis—may also be hard to reach. Meanwhile, adding a question about citizenship status may make immigrants and others more reluctant to share information with the government. A number of states, including California, have taken legal action to prevent the addition of this question, with arguments now headed to the Supreme Court.”

“State and local partners are essential in ensuring an accurate count: To prepare for the census, state and local governments help verify the Census Bureau’s address lists, an effort that will conclude by summer 2019. These agencies also play a critical role in encouraging participation. California’s budget for census outreach—$100 million in 2018–19, with another $54 million proposed for 2019–20—exceeds that of any other state. These funds are allocated according to the location of hard-to-count communities, with options for local governments, community-based organizations, media, and schools to receive funding. Community and philanthropic organizations are also contributing to outreach efforts.”

Getting an accurate count in California is critically important for our future.  NBLC appreciates the Governor and State Legislature’s commitment to funding the Census and has high hopes that Attorney General Becerra’s court challenge of the addition of the citizenship question prevails in the Supreme Court.

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